Like Pontius Pilate, director John Ford asks "What is truth?" in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance--but unlike Pilate, Ford waits for an answer. The film opens in 1910, with distinguished and influential U.S. senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) returning to the dusty little frontier town where they met and married twenty-five years earlier. They have come back to attend the funeral of impoverished "nobody" Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). When a reporter asks why, Stoddard relates a film-long ...
Like Pontius Pilate, director John Ford asks "What is truth?" in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance--but unlike Pilate, Ford waits for an answer. The film opens in 1910, with distinguished and influential U.S. senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) returning to the dusty little frontier town where they met and married twenty-five years earlier. They have come back to attend the funeral of impoverished "nobody" Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). When a reporter asks why, Stoddard relates a film-long flashback. He recalls how, as a greenhorn lawyer, he had run afoul of notorious gunman Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), who worked for a powerful cartel which had the territory in its clutches. Time and again, "pilgrim" Stoddard had his hide saved by the much-feared but essentially decent Doniphon. It wasn't that Doniphon was particularly fond of Stoddard; it was simply that Hallie was in love with Stoddard, and Doniphon was in love with Hallie and would do anything to assure her happiness, even if it meant giving her up to a greenhorn. When Liberty Valance challenged Stoddard to a showdown, everyone in town was certain that the greenhorn didn't stand a chance. Still, when the smoke cleared, Stoddard was still standing, and Liberty Valance lay dead. On the strength of his reputation as the man who shot Valance, Stoddard was railroaded into a political career, in the hope that he'd rid the territory of corruption. Stoddard balked at the notion of winning an election simply because he killed a man-until Doniphon, in strictest confidence, told Stoddard the truth: It was Doniphon, not Stoddard, who shot down Valance. Stoddard was about to reveal this to the world, but Doniphon told him not to. It was far more important in Doniphon's eyes that a decent, honest man like Stoddard become a major political figure; Stoddard represented the "new" civilized west, while Doniphon knew that he and the West he represented were already anachronisms. Thus Stoddard went on to a spectacular political career, bringing extensive reforms to the state, while Doniphon faded into the woodwork. His story finished, the aged Stoddard asks the reporter if he plans to print the truth. The reporter responds by tearing up his notes. "This is the West, sir, " the reporter explains quietly. "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." Dismissed as just another cowboy opus at the time of its release, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has since taken its proper place as one of the great Western classics. It questions the role of myth in forging the legends of the West, while setting this theme in the elegiac atmosphere of the West itself, set off by the aging Stewart and Wayne. Hal Erickson, Rovi
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I first saw "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" online in 2015 and had the opportunity to see the film again today, in 2018, in a large beautiful theater in a John Ford -- John Wayne retrospective. Although I thought of writing a new review, I decided to stay with my original review, written in 2015, which appears below.
I am old enough to have seen the movie "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" when it was released in 1962, but I never did. I have always loved the Gene Pitney song which is not used in the film. One thing led to another, and I finally saw "Liberty Valance" thanks to Amazon Instant Video. Things have their proper time. This western was a product of its time in 1962, and it was the proper time for me to see it today.
John Ford directed this black-and-white film of the old West, set in a fictitious frontier town called Shinbone just after the Civil War. The movie tells of the gradual change of the Western frontier from a place of lawless violence and ignorance to a society under the rule of law which promotes education, opportunity, the work ethic, and patriotism. The Old West is represented in the film by Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), a tough gun-toting and seemingly cynical rancher while the changing West is represented by a newcomer, a young naïve lawyer from the East, Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart). In his brusque way, Tom has been courting a young woman, Hallie (Vera Miles) but a contest develops for Hallie's affections with Ransom.
Shinbone has been terrorized by the brutal and ruthless outlaw for whom the film is named (Lee Marvin). Liberty Valance has been hired by cattle interests to oppose the territory's petition for Statehood. Ransom had been whipped to near death by Valance when he arrived law books in hand with Shinbone. He tries to set up a law practice and in the process teaches Hallie to read and write and establishes a small school to teach about civics. The movie turns on a showdown between Valance and Ranse and on the less violent fight between Ranse and Tom for Hallie.
The film is told as a lengthy flash-back after Ranse and his wife Hallie return at the outset of the film to Shinbone after 25 years away to attend Tom's funeral.
In 2007, "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" was added to the Library of Congress National Film Registry as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically" significant.This story celebrates both the Old and the changed West as it tells of American courage and persistence and of American faith in democracy, law, and education -- values which resonated strongly in the United States in 1962. Our country went through many difficult years, resulting in a tendency to question America's stated commitment to these values and to deflate films such as "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance". Now, it 2015, I was able to see the film for the first time and respond to it. Perhaps I together with many other Americans have been chastened to a degree in the many years following 1962 and may learn again from the values portrayed in the film.